Spreading head and neck cancer awareness through community libraries: MUSC researchers propose new model

April 08, 2024
Rena Lubker PhD and Joni Nelson PhD pose in the hall leading to the MUSC libraries
Dr. Rena Lubker, left, and Dr. Joni Nelson combined their expertise to consider new ways to get information about head and neck cancer to the community. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Community librarians are a hidden jewel at the centers of their communities – and two Medical University of South Carolina researchers think they could be a key to improving health literacy in rural areas concerning the subject of head and neck cancer.

The researchers, Joni Nelson, Ph.D., and Rena Lubker, Ph.D., presented their preliminary work during a poster session at the American Association for Cancer Research annual conference, one of the largest gatherings of cancer researchers in the nation.

“Dr. Lubker and I are from two different fields of science. I don't know how we found each other, but we did,” Nelson said.

Nelson’s background is in rural safety net health access, population oral health policy and public health promotion. With dual appointments in the Division of Population Oral Health in the College of Dental Medicine and the Department of Public Health Sciences in the College of Medicine, she also serves as the assistant director for the Office of Programs to Enhance Diversity at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center.

Lubker currently serves as a Research and Education librarian at the MUSC Libraries supporting the College of Dental Medicine, Dietetics and Public Health Sciences, with a background in public health and nutrition. She also has a dual appointment with the Division of Population Oral Health in the College of Dental Medicine.

Together, the two received a community-based grant through the National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine. The grant, PULL A-HEAD, Pursuing Leadership in Literacy to Ameliorate HEAd and neck cancer Disparities, supports the development of a community-centered health literacy program for head and neck cancer in South Carolina. Lubker and Nelson are working with members of the South Carolina Oral Health Action Network, public librarians and librarian directors to identify resources to emphasize the delivery of health literacy education and health systems navigation tools to improve the early detection of head and neck cancers.

There are both racial and geographic disparities in head and neck cancer, with minority and rural populations having worse outcomes.

“Having a strong library system in our state presents a unique opportunity to support the dissemination of resources around navigating the health care system, understanding your risks and prevention, understanding when and how you can be screened and how to be empowered to advocate for your own health outcomes,” Nelson said.

Public libraries already serve as resources for communities, far beyond providing books and computer access. They typically provide meeting space for community groups and clubs, classes in computer skills, connections to free tax preparation services for low-income individuals and resources for small businesses.

“Libraries are uniquely positioned as hubs of local information,” said Lubker, who visited the county public library in Orangeburg.

“The library is the center of that community. Everybody goes to the library,” Lubker said. “I thought, ‘Wow, that's really the best way to educate the community because they are going to go to the library anyway, and the librarians know their community. They know the people, and they know what type of educational materials and resources they can use.’”

Nelson and Lubker’s work is preliminary – they are still collecting data to understand more fully the best way to provide information that could be disseminated at libraries, prioritizing risk and prevention for head and neck cancer. But they’re hopeful that this work could become a blueprint for public libraries in other states.

Developed resources reported in this site are supported by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), National Institutes of Health (NIH) under cooperative agreement number UG4LM013736. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.